Hydra is appropriately named.

Expert publishing blog opinions are solely those of the blogger and not necessarily endorsed by DBW.

In mythology, a hydra is a serpent-like beast with many heads.  And when you cut one head off, it grew two more.  It also had poisonous breath and acid like blood.

So why would you name a publishing imprint after it?

Random House did.  And the SF/F community promptly went after it.  And Random House responded.  And so it goes.

There are many roads to Oz and Oz means different things for different people.

Briefly the key points:  no advance; authors are charged for ‘set up’ costs; and the contract wants all rights for the length of the copyright.

Plenty of blogs have sprouted up tearing apart these, and more, issues so I’ll leave them to that, except to note that Random House’s response does have some merit.  I think we’ll see a lot more of the “no advance/profit sharing” model.  This makes everyone have a vested interest in the success of the book.  It’s the model we use at Cool Gus.  I see many of those in SF/F upset about no advance, but it’s because most of those get an advance.  I actually turned down an advance on my last deal and went straight royalty.  Again, every author’s situation is different.  It’s not hard for an author who is being treated well by a trad house to defend trad publishing; nor is it hard for an indie who is raking in hundreds of thousands of dollars to believe that’s the way to go.  Since I came up with the term “hybrid author” in June 2011, we’re seeing more and more of these creatures who have one leg in each camp.

I’m not a fan of money flowing from author to publisher.  What Random House is doing, let’s be honest, is shilling it’s name, to get authors to fork over money; the vast majority of whom won’t ever earn back even the few hundred dollars stated.  And, as Random House points out, there will be a couple of authors who actually break out, but as with any road in publishing, the break out author is the rare exception.

Don’t even get my started on rights, out-of-print, reversion, etc. etc.

But I think we have to look at the bigger picture.  I’m seeing a shift in focus in publishing that’s becoming a bit incestuous.  From making money off readers to making money off writers.  After all, something like three quarters of people surveyed say they want to write a book.  That’s a big market.  In fact, that’s more than the number of people who actually read books.  I remember having students years ago with the Writers Digest Correspondence course and one of the questions in the first lesson was:  “How many books do you read a year?”  And the answer would often be:  “I don’t read books.”

But they sure want to write them.  Heck, pretty much every conference I’ve been at in the past year, there are more “authors” sitting behind tables “signing” than people in front of the tables buying books.

We’ve seen Author Solutions branch out with traditional publishers.  We’re seeing tons of start-ups offering boilerplate packages to potential authors, offering everything from cover art, to editing, to formatting, to ‘publicity packages’. Many publishers are flirting the thin line between publishing and vanity publishing.  I know the thinking—there’s a market out there and we can tap it.  I sense this is what Random House is doing.

In the same manner, I see an incestuous thing among writers.  We’re all talking to each other, but where the hell are the readers?  I’ve got 15,000 twitter followers and I’d be willing to bet over half of them are authors.  I feel like we’re in a stadium full of writers all shouting at each other, in one form or another, “Buy my book!”

Another disturbing trend is a shift away from writers focusing on the craft and becoming better writers, to authors focusing on marketing and promoting.  I recently offered an online course on Original Idea in January.  In the past I’d get 75 to 100 people to sign up for it.  We had two sign up and canceled it.  Conferences are full of marketing, promo, self-publishing workshops to the detriment of craft.

To me, the ugly heads of Hydra we need to be aware of, is that if we don’t keep our eye on our market, which is readers, it will, in the long run, destroy us, whether we be authors, agents or publishers.

Making money off writers can only take you so far.  Going back to my Cool Gus (much better name than Hydra, if I do say so myself) mantra:  Authors create product, which is story.  Readers consume product.  Everyone else is in between.  To shift the focus toward writers being the consumer of whatever product is being offered in between is a dangerous business plan in the long term.  We’ve seen these vanity presses come and go, usually swarmed under with lawsuits from disgruntled customer (writers) who wake up and realize the hundreds or thousands of dollars they’ve poured into getting their story out there has resulted in very few consumers actually reading it.

I see publishers, agents and writers go for the short term fix instead of the long term marathon of producing great stories that readers want.

I no longer look at my own company as a publisher.  We’re a partner with our authors.  It might seem insignificant but the change in attitude has been very eye-opening.  We’re all in this together and we have to keep our focus on the correct objective.

9 thoughts on “Hydra is appropriately named.

  1. Mick Rooney

    I think you have hit the nail on the head with this piece on two counts, or maybe hammer blows. The self-publishing community spends far too much time marketing to other authors, rather than the reading community. And the traditional publishers have learned far too many bad habits from the profit seekers at the bottom of the self publishing service industry.

  2. Kris Bock

    You’ve made many good points. I’ve worked with hundreds of writing students, and there’s a definite correlation between how much they read and how well they write.

    I suspect the focus is turning even more away from learning the writing craft to marketing and publicity, because in the past, failure to sell a manuscript might send a writer back to classes or workshops. Now they have another option, and although I’m in favor of options, it makes it too easy to blame the system rather than recognize when the writing needs more work.

  3. Thom Lemmons

    Dead on! As I read the posts from fellow writers–both self-pubbed and traditional–more and more of the conversation has to do with strategies for Facebook, blog tours, Twitter followers, etc. I get it that this is the reality of the socially networked world in which we live, but somehow, in all of this, both authors and publishers must remember that ultimately, it all comes down to the words on the page and their ability to connect meaningfully with a reader. And that process is all about craft, not marketing.

  4. Buddy Scalera

    While this may be relatively new in mainstream book publishing, it’s not uncommon in comic book publishing. I am a book author (5 books) and a comic book writer (many).

    Image Comics is the third or fourth largest publisher in the comic industry and this is how they structure their deals. They add value by promoting their imprints and providing convention services. That is, if you are an Image author, you can set up at their booth at conventions, which can be quite valuable.

    If Hydra moves in this direction, authors need to enter the agreement aware of what their own personal responsibilities are. Gone are the days of large publicity departments. Authors are now responsible for promoting their works.

    Readers are still buying, just not the way they did in the past. We, as authors, need to be agile enough to adapt to the real changes of this new marketplace.

  5. Max Downham

    The small number of authors the conglomerates like Random need on their books to stay in business are realizing that the old models don’t work anymore and are voting with their feet. Jason Epstein put his finger on it decades ago. When the cottage industry of book writing got taken over by big business, the tragic outcome was written on the wall. Soon, the big trads will be left with writers who don’t mind being treated as ‘text providers’. If it’s art they want, they’re going to be disappointed, facing the same wall B&N now face. People with integrity are finding that it’s not necessary to subordinate themselves to people who don’t have any. That bubble has finally burst.

  6. Bob MayerBob Mayer Post author

    Actually, here is an example right here at DBW of the incestuous relationships that are going on with this tweet:

    Digital publishing wisdom from 6 CEOs, 2 chief marketing officers, 2 chief digital officers others

    Checking the list, there isn’t a single author. And I’d like to know where these leaders were in 2010 when most in publishing were dismissing eBooks as nothing to be concerned about and 3% of the market. That’s not to say there isn’t value in these panels, but sometimes those working from inside the industry can’t see the real picture. And this ‘wisdom’ is coming from those who are between the creators and the consumers. Wouldn’t it be smart to hear from those most important people in the business? Just a thought.

    1. Jeremy Greenfield

      C’mon Bob…that’s a little harsh. It’s not like we’re marketing the book as everything you need to know about digital publishing — that it’s the only source of wisdom. It’s one of many and quite a valuable one. You’ve read many of the interviews yourself and talked about and written about some of the insights you’ve learned.

      And, yes, I agree it would be smart to hear from authors, which is why you and several other authors are expert bloggers on DBW. Why we’ve invited you to speak at the DBW conference. Why we’ve surveyed nearly 5,000 authors on what they want and published it as a 55 page report available for purchase on DBW.com. (And why we’re doing a followup focusing on hybrid authors that I’m going to reach out to you privately about.)

      In fact, DBW.com spends more time talking about authors and hearing from them than any other site that reports on the industry — by a long shot.

      If you think we need to do that more, I’m happy to discuss. I’m always open to it.

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